Mark Znidar
Mark Znidar

Mark Znidar comes to Press Pros Magazine after 33 ½ years at The Columbus Dispatch. From 1996 until September 2018, he staffed high school sports, Ohio colleges that included the Mid-American Conference, Ohio State’s upcoming opponents in football and Ohio State baseball. In the previous three seasons he covered the Columbus Clippers triple-A baseball team. His other beats were Ohio State basketball (1985-88), Clippers (1985-86 and 1989-93), Cincinnati Bengals (1993-95) and NASCAR (1994-2008). He subbed on the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ohio State women’s basketball beats. In March 2017, Znidar was inducted into the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.  Znidar was born in Cleveland and raised in Richmond Heights. He graduated from Cleveland St. Joseph High School and the University of Dayton. He also worked for The Atlantic City Press, Lake County News-Herald and Baltimore News-American. He has a daughter, Amanda, and four grandchildren.

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The Hawkeyes junior center is a Division I national player of the year candidate for filling up the statistics sheets and leading Iowa to 18 victories…so far.  The Buckeyes hope to slow him down in their Thursday matchup.

Columbus – If an artist needed someone to pose for a painting of the likeness of the late professional wrestler Andre The Giant, Iowa center Luke Garza would be that guy.

He stands 6 feet 11, weighs 260 pounds and all he would need are tights and big black boots. In athletic parlance, he can be called a load of a basketball player without embellishing.

Garza, though, looks terribly miscast for his sport once you see him moving. He resembles, well, Andre The Giant. He runs as if he’s staggering. His vertical leap, well, it’s good that he has long arms.

The look test screams “banger.’’

But Garza is a Division I national player of the year candidate for averaging 23.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots and has been the single biggest reason the Hawkeyes are ranked 20th and all but a lock to make the NCAA tournament.

Ohio State (17-8, 7-7) must find a way to at least slow him down if it is to pull off the stunner and defeat Iowa (18-8, 9-6) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Garza has been great and knows it. There is no one cockier in short pants. He’ll stare down opponents after baskets, talk some smack to players on the opposing bench, gesture to the crowd and wave his arms to get the crowd into it.

“A great player,’’ Buckeyes junior forward Kyle Young said. “I’ve been seeing a lot of good things from him this year. He’s having a fantastic year.’’

Garza’s first two seasons in Iowa City were upstanding. He averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds as a true freshman and 13.1 points and 4.5 rebounds last season.

What set up Garza for this unexpected success was his work in the off-season. When his parents visited family in Bosnia during the summer, he hunted down a gym and worked out three times a day. He would hold a brick in each hand and move laterally from one side of the lane to the other.

In August, there were more workouts in Vallejo, California. He lost 30 pounds.

Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann said that work can be seen on game footage.

“He’s a year older (Garza) and he’s in elite shape,”  says Holtmann.  “He’s incredibly physical, but it’s his motor that makes him so special.”

“I think he’s a year older, for one, and he’s in elite shape,’’ Holtmann said. “I think he’s in incredible condition for a guy as big as he is. He has got tremendous touch. It’s clear he put in tremendous work in the off-season with his fitness, conditioning and shooting. He is incredibly physical, but it’s his motor that makes him so special.’’

At first, Garza was labeled a non-athlete in high school at the Maret School in Washington, D.C. But by his junior season, major colleges were offering him a scholarship.

Garza chose Iowa because coach Fran McCaffery was in on him from the start.

“He is a guy, who, when he said he was coming, I thought he could score 2,000 points,’’ McCaffery said. “He’s that good.’’

Maryland’s Mark Turgeon was one of those coaches too late the Garza sweepstakes. Whereas some coaches and scouts will pick apart Garza’s game, he sees the strengths.

“He’s a hard match-up because he works so hard,’’ Turgeon said. “He posts hard, he has got a great shot fake, (great) step-throughs, all kind of moves – left hand, right hand. Plus, he can shoot the three.’’

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Big Ten Network analyst Jess Settles, a former Iowa player, said Garza can’t be stopped at this stage of the season.

“He’s in one of those zones right now where he can’t be defended,’’ Settles said. “He’s really unstoppable. You keep thinking that there’s going to be a falloff, but it’s just not going to happen.’’

Here is Garza by the numbers:

1. He has the two highest point games of the Big Ten season, 38 against Indiana and 44 against Michigan.
2. He has put up 11 straight games of 20 or more points in conference games.
3. Ten times he has totaled more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in a game.
4. Twenty-five times he has scored 25 points or more.
5. In the Big Ten, he ranks first in scoring, fourth in rebounding and fifth in blocked shots.

It’s that will to win that separates Garza from the field. The Hawkeyes trailed Minnesota by eight points in Minneapolis with 5 minutes, 24 seconds to play.

Iowa staged an 11-0 run to win 58-55, and McCaffery said Garza called that shot.

“When they went up by eight and I checked in (to the game), I told everybody we’re going to win this game because I had confidence,’’ Garza said. “I knew we had enough time to do it.’’

He did his share with a two-point basket and three-pointer.

Why is Ohio State up against it?

Iowa has not lost at home since a 93-78 decision against DePaul on November 11 in The Gavitt Games.

Justin Ahrens remembers well his breakout game of a year ago against Iowa, and hopes to reprise.  “Coach tells me to be confident when I go in, and if I gett a good look, take it.”

The Hawkeyes have dispatched Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Illinois and Nebraska at Carver-Hawkeye.

“I really believe it’s the best Iowa team that we’ve played in my three years,’’ Holtmann said. “They were very good last year. As I’ve always said when we play them that Fran has a great system. They play really hard at home. It’s a different animal in a lot of ways – a great home crowd and a great environment. They haven’t lost at home since maybe November, and there is a reason for that.’’

This is not a must-win game for the Buckeyes by any means. They have won five of their last six games and have a healthy NCAA NET of 17 compared to the Hawkeyes 29.

Ohio State and Iowa have split the last 10 meetings since 2014. The Hawkeyes have won three of the last four games at home.

“I think we think with every game going forward that every game is going to be important at this point,’’ Young said. “We’ve got a great team coming up and another one on Saturday. With every game we’ve got to come in with that mindset that we need that win. We need to keep doing what we’re doing.’’

Last season, the Buckeyes were in dire need of a win to raise their resume for the NCAA tournament committee and got it by roughing up the Hawkeyes 90-70 at The Schott.

“Despite the records being somewhat similar, we’re very different in terms of when you just look at the quality of wins across the board,’’ Holtmann said. “It’s just a significant different and the numbers back that up. At the same time, we all look at wins in the Big Ten being very, very crucial.’’

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The last Iowa game was a highlight tape for then freshman wing Justin Ahrens of Versailles. He scored 29 points and might have had spectators thinking about the days of mad bomber Jon Diebler.

“It’s framed pretty well in my memory,’’ Ahrens said. “It was kind of fun. I felt it coming (before the game).’’

He won’t be a mystery this time.

“Especially late in the season when you’ve played a lot of games and see what guys can and can’t do,’’ Ahrens said. “I’m on scouting reports now.’’

There have been many more minutes for him with freshman guard DJ Carton out to attend to mental health issues. He received double-digit minutes three times the first 17 games, but has had games of 13, 12, 13, 12, 14, 16, 12 and 15 ½ minutes in eight of the last nine games.

There is a growing reality that freshman DJ Carton might not return this season.  I’m hoping that we can get him on a path towards improved health,”  says Holtmann.  “That’s the only priority.”

“Shoot the ball and play some defense,’’ Ahrens said of his job description. “I’m happy with my role and do the best that I can. A lot of it is shooting. I’ve been shooting pretty well, so Coach tells me to be confident when I go in and when I get a good look, take it.’’

What’s his job precisely?

“My job when I get out there is to take good looks,’’ he said. “I have to keep the ball moving, keep it popping, keep the defense on its heels. I play off other guys. They create shots for me. I don’t create shots for myself. I knew what I was capable of, which is knocking down shots.’’

Holtmann said Ahrens has the “green light’’ to fire away whenever he’s open because “he’s supremely confident right now and guys are finding him.’’

The minutes might stay the same or even increase with the growing reality that Carton might not return this season. He’s from Bettendorf, Iowa, but probably will not attend the game as a spectator.

The thinking, Holtmann said, is to get Carton healthy.

“I’m hopeful that we can get him on a path toward improved health,’’ he said. “That’s the only priority. It’s late in the year and he has been away for a while. If and when he returns (for medical reasons), there’s a lot that goes into in any way being acclimated back into any type of organized activity. There is a very specific and extended protocol that goes into that. It’s to protect a player.’’

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